Everything Is Permitted…
… But American history isn’t true. At least according to Alex Hutchinson, creative director behind Ubisoft’s latest release in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
In fairness, it’s unlikely that Hutchinson believes that United States history is all a sham. Even if he did have a 9/11 Truther’s love of conspiracy and a seat on Texas’ commission for vandalizing textbooks, Hutchinson’s job is to make up good stories that we can play through. The problem is, despite demand for a female protagonist, the third iteration of the time-hopping series won’t deliver because, in Hutchinson’s words, “The history of the American Revolution is the history of men.”
That’s a rather bold statement of fact. It is also very quickly and easily refuted. One community discussing the article linked above had this to say. With the search terms “women American revolution," Google will give immediate satisfaction by returning more thorough biographies. Less than a minute’s search shows how false the claim is, assuming common sense weren’t enough to encourage at least moderating it. “Significantly more men than women took up arms either against or out of loyalty to King George III” is easily defensible. When it’s so easy to be right, it begins to look like he maliciously chose to be wrong.
I still defend ignorance as a better explanation. Yes, even Forbes of all publications has had its fun with Hutchinson’s interview. The previous two games have shown women being taken in for assassin training, or pitted the protagonist against women masquerading as male Templars. Let me repeat that: This series has embraced women as Crusades era Knights Templar, and now Hutchinson wants to talk about how ladies will break our precious immersion. I can almost hear him asking, “why you gotta bring up old shit?” when confronted with all this.
Well, history matters. Hutchinson’s culpability isn’t the point. Kotaku’s far more forgiving coverage still includes Hutchinson saying, when he thinks about women during the American Revolution, he thinks about an HBO show which “really is a bunch of dudes”. If we’re generous and assume that his TV influenced ideas about American history were augmented with a high school education, I don’t believe we can expect Hutchinson to be the video game equivalent of Howard Zinn.
This is the real problem, the failure of our education system to inform Americans about where they came from. Usually when we say that, we’re talking about evolution and the attacks on sound science education. Too often we forget how history and the humanities are just as vital to understanding our origins. It is not an accident that belief in intelligent design correlates highly here with believing the “Founding Fathers” were all devout Christians.
Unfortunately, some of that is the result of conspiracy. I wasn’t joking about Texas textbook wars. But it is the ignorance, magnified and echoed many times over in the comments on these articles, that breeds malicious, marginalizing results. For one simple example, if you want to see the very few comments that correctly identify women’s broader role during the American Revolution, you have to be a member of the site and look for what’s been heavily downvoted. A casual browser will not see these comments at all, and a dedicated user is part of a peer network that reinforces the most popular opinion. A casual browser will see plenty of “get back in the kitchen” jokes, but I wouldn’t call that a fair trade.
Nor does this climate encourage a new type of dedicated user who could effect change in the forum. Offline, the closest equivalent to this has to be the frustrated progressive voter. Thinking again of the Lone Star state, we’re gerrymandered to the point where reactionary lawmakers are practically guaranteed reelection every cycle. Zoom out further to look at the national scene, where the right wing has spent decades perfecting their echo chamber, and moderate Republicans have become an endangered species.
What does this say about how we understand the role of women in history or games? Further, how do we collectively envision the future of women, as either historical actors or digital heroines?
Whenever the question of equal and accurate representation is raised, one of the most common derailments raised is, “If you don’t like it, change the channel”. You can’t find music by First Nations or Indigenous American artists on mainstream radio? Native Voice 1 produces a few hours of music for you… And where I live, it comes on around 11 pm, on the donation supported public music station. Of course there’s the podcast, downloadable any time, and hey! There’re lots of those for all kinds of people! Provided, of course, you’re privileged enough to be able to access the necessary technology. Oh stop fussing, we already gave you like a whole month for your history, all of you crazy minorities get one, enough with the misandry and reverse racism!
What this really means most of the time is that pieces of media which feature minorities are often produced either in the margins, or within the dominant paradigm and by its rules. Porn offers some of the most obvious examples. If I want to indulge my prurient interests, see people like me enjoying sexual intimacy, I can “choose” between thousands of exploitative works with a very narrow idea of what transwomen are, or a painfully small batch of erotica that is hard to find. I can either try to enjoy it through the fetishized and degrading gaze most of it is produced for, or I can make do with almost nothing.
Games, especially story driven games, supposedly elevate choice as a prime characteristic of the medium. However, the fact of having a few arguably great choices again underscores how dominant, even hostile, the mainstream is to minority representation. Bioware, with both its Mass Effect series and Dragon Age franchise, has enjoyed plenty of support for how its games give players strong women in leading roles. Many LGBTQ gamers enjoyed being able to pursue gay romances in some of their games, and continue to repost one of their developer’s putting a self identified “straight male gamer” in his place for expecting to be pandered to exclusively.
But in what ways is being able to play a woman a meaningful experience in these games? Dialogue choices are functionally identical for male and female characters, except when pursuing the rushed, and sometimes painfully awkward romances. Even then, since your homosexual options are not exclusively homosexual, you will wind up romancing another woman the same way a male protagonist would, with the same language and actions. If this is the equal representation we’re meant to applaud, why does it look like eliminating any and all differences between us except for breasts and facial hair? Of course, if we were talking about Saints Row, you could have both on the same character.
Big budget games, their developers, and their most vocal fans, collectively, have very important things to say about gender equality, in between all these lines of code. Not like main characters being called “feminist whores” by their creators, not quite that literally, but there are some definite ground rules women have to play by.
One, the game will not be made explicitly with you or your experiences in mind. The game world may give you a very adjustable “skin”, but it will still mostly ungender you, just as surely as your skin color will have no impact on how the world interacts with you.
Two, even this “reductio ad nihil” notion of gender equality is only possible to imagine in very fantastic worlds, such as space operas in the far future or faux-medieval worlds of swords and sorcery. The closer the game world comes to resembling the world we actually live in, the more “absurd” and “unrealistic” it would be to let you navigate that world as a woman.
Finally, playing fast and loose with history in games premised on actual events, is acceptable when it makes for a more pleasurable game. However, “pleasurable” here means only that which supports a masculine power fantasy, and “history” means broadly accepted assumptions about some time and place we heard about once or twice.
And they defend this imbalance as a result of their “skepticism”?! How their ability to “believe” in this game world hinges not on the presence of alien technology and super powered assassins in 18th century Boston, but whether a woman can have power?
They won’t “bend the rules” for the other, even when acknowledging the very factual contributions of women during the Revolutionary War, or indeed any era, only requires people to suspend a manufactured disbelief that is divorced from reality. If America were teaching true, inclusive history, would the mainstream gamer echo chamber rush so eagerly, even hatefully, to the defense of developers who think including women is “a pain”? Would the TV shows that appear to form their beliefs about American history encourage them to see that it’s “nothing but dudes”?
But those are counterfactuals. As many media outlets remind us, games included, we don’t live in that world. A world where women have power and agency is, apparently, an absurd fantasy.
(Featured Image is the statue of Deborah Sampson, who served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War while posing as a man, outside the Sharon public library. Used with permission from here)